Eight years ago, I didn't have sex for one year.
Partway into carrying my first baby, the pregnancy got rough, and my husband and I stopped having intercourse. Though my daughter's birth was the happiest moment of my life thus far, it was also physically traumatic. It took about six months post-partum for my birth injuries to heal. Between the physical challenges and the mental ones that came — for both me and my husband — with a new baby who turned our lives upside down ... let's just call it the longest dry spell of my life and our lives together.
Last week, I wrote about that experience in an essay published at Huffington Post Parents. While I knew this was a big, somewhat scary confession I was making, I didn't expect the swell of response I got in the form of more than 15,000 Facebook likes and shares, 350 comments on the post and hundreds more comments on social media.
The span of reactions was mostly awe-inspiring (and occasionally disheartening). They ranged from a reader who called my post one of the sweetest love stories she'd ever read (which is, in fact, how I'd intended it) to an outraged minority (but boy, were they vocal and blunt!) criticizing me for not doing my duty to "please my husband" and putting my children at risk in an unhealthy marriage and assuring me that although I might have gone without sex for a year, my partner didn't — he had obviously cheated (thanks, total strangers, for bringing me up to speed on that).
I heard from wives and husbands who had also navigated dry spells, both for physical reasons (childbirth, cancer, other major illness) and emotional ones and had learned important lessons about the strength of full-spectrum love. I heard painful stories from people who left unfulfilling relationships when the physical connection was no longer there, some who still hurt. From spouses who suffer bravely through long military deployments, and from widows and widowers lonely for their departed loves. I heard from a woman who said she had never been lucky enough to find true love, felt herself too old now, and was filled with a life's regret.
One of the most common reactions I got to this controversial piece was in the form of thank-yous, from both men and women, for busting open a taboo topic and speaking honestly about one aspect of marriage and intimacy — the sexual ebbs and flows of some long-term relationships. Many men apologized for the seeming ignorance of others.
What I learned from being honest about married sex and intimacy are at once obvious truths and the things we often forget:
1. In our society, we define ourselves in part by how sexual we are, and how that sexuality matches up to the Photoshopped/Hollywood ideal. If I was a single girl saying I didn't have sex for a year, the admission wouldn't have caused one batted eye. But as a married woman I became many things to Internet readers: A selfish bitch; an exhausted, washed-up caricature; an asexual mother figure leaving her poor husband in the dust.
2. Sex is a linchpin in healthy relationships; sometimes it takes the backseat; sometimes we need to bring it back front and center.
3. Intimacy and sex are two different things, a subtlety that often is overlooked but that can mean the difference between navigating a difficult time to a happy conclusion and losing a part of your relationship that is hard to recover.
4. Some people still believe it is solely the woman's job to keep the man pleased, sexually satisfied and interested, and that "men are just different than women" and have a driving need for sex that must not, under any circumstance, be denied. This is just wrong, and while I thought that went without saying, apparently in many circles this is akin to the truth of God and woe to those who don't drink the Cool-Aid — we're home-wreckers.
5. There's a disturbing lack of understanding, even among some people who are parents themselves, about the physical effects of childbirth on some women's bodies, and the time and measures commonly needed to heal those parts of the body.
6. We need to speak more honestly about marriage, relationships, sex and intimacy as parents. I wrote this piece partly in reaction to some recent portrayals of parents, especially those in egalitarian marriages. How we relate to each other, define and distribute roles, and manage our identities is the important discussion around modern marriage today. Let's add the honest exploration of sex and intimacy to that discussion, and speak freely.
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